The American military and its industrial base have a rich history of recruiting through propaganda and manipulation. By providing support to movies like Top Gun in exchange for editorial control, the Department of Defense (DoD) makes military service look adventurous, comradely, and righteous. And they use the debt and hardship of young Americans to make service seem like a good life decision.
In recent decades, the military has landed on another propaganda tool to attract tech talent: nerd fantasy. The military and its private sector counterparts increasingly use references to movies like Star Wars and books like The Lord of the Rings to launder their image. Surveillance companies and military contractors Palantir and Anduril are named after The Lord of the Rings. The Defense Digital Service (DDS), a DoD team of self-proclaimed “tech experts tackling the DoD’s toughest problems,” unofficially call themselves the “Rebel Alliance.”
Many DDS employees, including its first leader Chris Lynch, left to found the company Rebellion Defense, which fills DoD contracts to build AI for “battlefield decisions.” The company has referred to itself as “an unconstrained ‘Project Maven’” — the military AI contract that Google dropped after employee protests. Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt is a board member, and the company’s valuation is over $1 billion (although it may be struggling to live up to that price tag).
By the looks of it, DDS and Rebellion Defense are Star Wars superfans. They name every team, project, office, conference room, contract, and software application after a Star Wars reference. Rebellion Defense has a mural of light sabers in its office, which is reportedly littered with Star Wars collectibles. Star Wars characters in full cosplay show up to their events. “It’s no secret we’re a little obsessed with #StarWars,” jokes the DDS account on Twitter.
But this isn’t your ordinary fandom. The Department of Defense and its private sector offshoots are “obsessed” with fantasy worlds like that depicted in Star Wars because they serve a particular propagandistic purpose. The Star Wars comparisons enable the military-industrial complex to portray itself — to the public but perhaps more importantly to its own employees — as a band of heroes in a simplistic battle of Good vs. Evil.
The use of metaphor is political speech, wrote George Orwell, because it “anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain . . . and is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” If service members and workers ever become uncomfortable with the work they’re being asked to do, they can suppress that creeping guilt by imagining that American imperialism is actually the Light Side of the Force in a fight against the Dark Side.
Again, the strategy is hardly new: the military has been laundering its image through pop culture for decades. It has provided funding or in-kind support to aid in the production of movies like Top Gun, James Bond, Jurassic Park, Black Hawk Down, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, and Transformers, on the condition that the films portray the military as a valiant force of heroes fighting unambiguous evildoers.
But the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings angle is qualitatively different. As should be obvious to anyone familiar with the stories, there’s a problem: they’re on the wrong side. Luke Skywalker wasn’t fighting to make the evil Empire more efficient and effective, and members of the Rebel Alliance weren’t getting rich off the intergalactic wars. The privacy-invading spy tools created by Palantir are actually not too dissimilar from the all-seeing Eye of Sauron, while AI for the military from Anduril and Rebellion Defense calls to mind Skynet from The Terminator.
The franchise itself is pretty explicit on this point. In the latest Star Wars series, Andor, the Empire extracts resources, displaces Indigenous populations, turns prisoners into slave labor, and partners with corporations for profit. These themes will be familiar to any observer of American capitalism and its police state. Interestingly, the series also portrays characters working for the Dark Side because they consider the Empire their best option for employment, escape from destitution, or orderly justice amid chaos. Similarly, some of the rebellion’s struggles are also all too familiar on the Left: infighting, painful choices, and self-sacrifice for a “sunrise that I know I’ll never see.”
Military technology groups desperately want to portray themselves as the good guys. On DDS’s website, the organization claims that its projects “improve the lives of service members and civilians” and that they “design with users, not for them.” It’s a nod to progressive human-centered design practices that are meant to be inclusive of the people affected by products, but it conveniently ignores anyone on the other side of the weapons they’re building. Likewise, Rebellion Defense claims in its “Ethical Principles” that its AI products are protecting “democracy,” “privacy,” and “humanitarian values.” It even states that Rebellion Defense’s “thoughtfully designed technology can de-escalate conflict.” (Meanwhile, Rebellion Defense board member Schmidt cowrote a book with war criminal Henry Kissinger that vastly overstates both the military threat posed by China and the potential of defense AI.)
In reality, military tech can’t prevent or de-escalate conflict. The United States military, its industrial complex, and the politicians they fund are beholden to growth in order to provide investors and campaign donors the ever-increasing profits that they expect. Capitalism’s only definition of success is profit growth — and in this case, growth means war. To that end, the military-industrial interests perpetually inflate threats around the world and then declare that the only solution is US military intervention. The tech they build only exists to help them do this — it can’t reverse that trend. Only demilitarization can.
As the socialist leader Eugene V. Debs said, “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — especially their lives.” To promote de-escalation of conflict and humanitarian values, we must pursue demilitarization and an organized working class through strong unions and universal social programs. The “master class” and its profiteering war machine are the evil Empire, and there’s no reforming it from the inside. We must resist its claims to heroism.